Wednesday Oct 19, 2022
“It’s almost a mistake to laugh as a cancer warrior in Pakistan,” Fatima Tariq, 23, says.
Tariq, like many, is a cancer warrior. But what separates her from most people is her determination to change people’s attitudes towards the disease.
Now 23, she was 16 when she got diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma, one of the rarest forms of cancer that grew in the teen’s left heel. Thankfully, surgeons successfully removed the malignant tumour, also removing her ankle bone. She went through a plethora of treatments and finally became cancer-free.
To her dismay, however, just after two years of being healthy, her cancer returned and this time, it came back stronger. In 2019, the tumour affected her lungs to the extent that the doctors lost hope and refused to treat her, hinting to her parents that it was nearly impossible to save her life.
“In one word, it's devastating,” Tariq said reminiscing the years she says she has lost to the disease.
“People my age go to universities, do fun things, and plan the future and I am just stuck between home and hospital,” she told Geo.tv, adding that she now feels trapped.
Tariq, as reported by her schoolmates, was one of the most energetic students in the class who greeted every person with arms wide open and the biggest smile. While she admitted she does not have that energy anymore, one thing about Fatima has still not changed: her optimism.
Cancer spread to her entire lung in 2020, leaving her unable to breathe on her own. Following that, a doctor decided to pursue risky chemotherapy.
Considering Tariq’s health, who weighed only 32kgs at the time, most doctors did not expect her to cross three sessions of chemo. Today, she has had almost 40 of these sessions and has a healthy weight for her age.
“I know and I really hope everything is going to be okay one day,” she remarked.
Tariq confessed, however, that she believed that the “old Fatima” might never come back as the years she lost to cancer can never be regained.
As someone who has been seeing hospitals for years now, Tariq was asked about the country’s healthcare system and treatment for cancer cases.
“There are a few hospitals and private organisations that are doing a great job in providing people with medical services and there are also some organisations that are treating people free of charge or less expensive than other private hospitals,” she said.
Tariq called such organisations a “blessing,” noting that cancer treatment is “long-term and really expensive”.
She added that some private hospitals were “looting people” and claimed that untrained staff "mishandle patients” adding to patients' pain.
“I have personally faced such mishandling.”
Tariq said she had met incredible doctors and nurses over the years who had been kind to her and understood her pain. “Doctors and nurses can have a positive as well as negative impact on a patient,” she remarked.
With this motivation, she shares the woes of chemotherapy with the world via her Instagram “Chemo Diaries”. Tariq makes the best use of humour to help people understand the experiences of cancer warriors.
In one of her posts, she trolled people who ask chemo patients "stupid questions" like “saray baal gir gaye (have all your hair fallen)?”
She is also "done with" people asking how long her treatment will last.
She wants people to know it's not okay to judge those with chronic and terminal illnesses.
“It’s almost a mistake to laugh as a cancer warrior in Pakistan,” she said, adding that people perceive smiling and laughing patients to be “fit”.
“Stop telling us that we are ungrateful and focus on being kind instead,” she advised.
When asked what message she would give to warriors like herself, she said “cancer is called a war for a reason”, mentioning the significance of having faith in God.
Fatima, who is hopeful despite her deteriorating health, asked other patients to “never lose hope”. Being unique in all aspects of life, she gave the non-traditional advice to not always be “brave and strong”.
“We are also humans, we can cry too,” she confidently remarked. “Don't let anyone tell you that you are being ungrateful just because you are letting your emotions out.”
“Don't stress over things you can't control; just leave it to Allah,” she continued.
In the end, Tariq mentioned some do's and dont's of interacting with cancer warriors.
“Avoid asking weird questions,” Tariq began. She said that people needed to be very careful before asking any questions. For example, asking why she wears masks all the time is ignorant. "This points to the fact that people need to educate themselves more about the disease that has now, unfortunately, become common."
“Do try to maintain a safe distance from cancer warriors as their immune system is very weak,” Tariq pointed out.
“Families should be really supportive,” she added.
The most important thing, she said, was to not compare cancer to other illnesses or common pains.
For now, doctors do not have a cure for Tariq’s condition and have asked her to “continue chemotherapies till she can tolerate them”.
— All pictures are provided by Fatima Tariq